The abuse of reflexive pronouns

March 10, 2009

I am not a pedant. I wouldn’t dare, as my knowledge of grammar isn’t 100% perfect. I accept that people have different ideas about what constitutes good usage and that a lot of them think that, as long as effective communication takes place, rules can be broken. Hence I barely flinch when I see the sign “10 items or less” in my local supermarket. The involuntary shudder caused in me by a misplaced apostrophe is imperceptible to the human eye. You will not find me point out to someone that they used “their” instead of “there” (although I may tut inwardly).

However, there is one mistake that I find unbearable. It’s the continued mistreatment of reflexive pronouns by a large portion of society. I recently received an email ending with “I will send it to yourselves” and it’s all I could do not to send back an email answering “Yourself is very kind.”

There is one simple rule for reflexive pronouns: they always refer to the subject of the sentence. That’s why “I will send it to yourselves” is wrong: the subject (I) and the object (plural you) are different. However, “I will send it myself” would have been right: here, the subject is emphasized by the use of its reflexive pronoun.

I was talking to a coworker, a Bookmark and Share

Posted by céline on March 10, 2009
Technical corner

Comments

I love this subject. I've been ranting about it for years. Sorry to tell you that I'm the sort who instantly stops reading when I get "their" for "they're", though. However, the "myself" and "yourselves" thing actually invites, if not deserves acts of calculated, targeted violence. This great post of yours reminded me of this: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/7457287.stm

Posted by Ricard on March 10, 2009 5:17 PM

I used to find the (ab)use of reflexive pronouns a bit grating myself (oops!) but after spending a few years in Ireland I got used to it - I don't mind it all now ;-)

Posted by Licia on March 10, 2009 5:53 PM

I DO very much mind it. It is so incorrect and illiterate. It detracts immensely from the user.

Licia's usage above is correct. These pronouns can be either reflexive or intensive.

I don't agree with your spin on why yourself is used. I hear it used more in other persons. People are just uneducated.

Posted by Gerri on March 14, 2009 5:03 AM

Wow--I had no idea this usage even existed. I had never heard it before; I'm guessing that it never, or hardly ever, occurs in Canada or the United States. Here one does find reflexive usage like this, however:

The presentation, which will be given by my distinguished colleague and myself, will be held in the Aloha Room at 9:30.

The "myself" in this example is technically incorrect according to prescriptive grammatical rules (since the subject of that clause is "which," referring to "presentation"). However, as someone else hypothesized, I think its purpose is to add politeness or a level of "deferentialness."

However, the instances of "yourselves" and "yourself" in your examples I do not believe occur in North America (yet).

--

Just as an aside, I'd like to comment on "10 items or less/fewer." The prescriptive rule that might lead one to believe that "fewer" would be more "correct" in "10 items or fewer" is itself wrong--this rule was arbitrarily invented in 1770 and has no basis in any historical English usage ("less" has been used this way since the time King Alfred) nor in the usage of the best writers of English ever since, as a perusal of the OED will confirm.

Here is a thorough and interesting discussion of the issue:

http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003775.html

(I recommend Language Log wholeheartedly--it gives a fresh and rational perspective on all kinds of language issues that we in the English-speaking world love to debate to death.)

The actual usage is, and always has been, that "less" is preferred over "fewer" with ages, distances, money, and time:

less than 50 years old (fewer?)
less than 50 miles away
less than 50 dollars
less than 50 minutes

In each of these, a native speaker of English should hear "fewer" as sounding possibly correct, but not something you would ever actually say in natural speech--or a bit pedantic, or absolutely wrong (especially with "years old"). The point is that "less" is and always has been the more common and preferred version in structures like this.

Anyway, I recommend the Merriam-Webster "Dictionary of English Usage" as well as the "Cambridge Grammar of the English Language" in conjunction with Language Log as a fascinating way to take a fresh look at things like this. :-)

Posted by MT on March 15, 2009 5:57 AM

Just who is Gerri? There's nothing clever about pointing out someone's perceived inadequacy, in this case being uneducated, much of which can be down to something as simple as dyslexia.

Posted by Richard Hamer on March 15, 2009 10:10 PM

@MT: Well, here we go again. This is exactly why I adopt an ultra tolerant attitude to grammar and language use: whenever I think I've pinpointed a common and annoying mistake, I'm shown that actually, its use is perfectly correct and accepted. Now I can't even feel superior in my supermarket. Nevermind. And thanks for the excellent demonstration.
Language Log has been in my bookmarks for years. I love it.

@Gerri: I think MT has demonstrated that one's perceived inadequacies can sometimes reveal our own. A good lesson.

@Richard: Couldn't agree more.

What I've learned today: it's not because they're incorrect that some language uses grate to me. Sometimes, it's just because "It sounds wrong" for some strange, unconscious reason. Thanks everyone.

Posted by céline on March 16, 2009 11:23 AM

Perhaps a linguist could put me right, but I have a feeling that the use of ''yourselves'' might be a contraction of ''your good selves.'' There were a couple of standard phrases, such as ''your good offices'' and ''your good selves'' that were used in formal letter writing but that are now completely outdated - the kind of thing that Victorian bank clerks might have written to each other, similar to those French formulas that start off ''Veuillez agréer...''. The form ''yourselves'' might be a not-too acceptable hangover by people who feel that it has something respectful about it but who can no longer use the obsolete phrase in full.

As far as grammar is concerned, I try to get it right for the context - ''right but light'' could be a motto to indicate that it's correct but not to the extent that it becomes clumsy or laboured. The grammatical demands for an application letter and a night down the pub with friends are not the same.

And note that nearly every regional dialect is ''defective'' compared to standard English. The words ''I done'' can be heard in almost every dialect in the country yet, because it's not regarded as standard, or RP or Queen's English, pedants will try and impose ''I did.'' A great proportion of the English-speaking community is perfectly happy ''getting it wrong'' because that's the way they learn and hear the language - and it works perfectly. Until, of course, you have to appear educated...

Posted by Morgan on March 25, 2009 9:05 PM

I like your theory Morgan, it fits with my feeling that it's got to do with being polite. And like I may not have made clear in my entry, my dislike of this use of reflexive pronouns isn't so much caused by the fact that it may or may not be grammatical but by the "false humility" they try and and convey. I just don't like it, it's so hard to explain!

Posted by céline on March 26, 2009 9:39 AM

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